Commentary Magazine

Is ‘Social Orthodoxy’ Orthodox?

Our April issue featured Mr. Lefkowitz’s “The Rise of Social Orthodoxy,” which has occasioned an extraordinary amount of comment and ferment within the Jewish community. We here offer a selection of that commentary, each followed by a response from Mr. Lefkowitz.

To the Editor:

The Jewish community, and particularly the Orthodox Jewish community, owes a debt of gratitude to Jay P. Lefkowitz for opening a conversation on a phenomenon that has existed for quite some time and that is growing in numbers and influence in America and, perhaps, in Israel as well. Mr. Lefkowitz calls it “Social Orthodoxy.” It could be best described as “Cultural Orthodoxy” or “Communal Orthodoxy.” He describes a committed Jewish life that doesn’t rely on God or a divinely authored, authoritative halacha for inspiration or obligation. No one is being obligated to do anything. Social Orthodox Jews are developing what might be described as a voluntary commitment to behave in a religious way as a manifestation of their commitment to the Jewish people, to a 4,000-year-old history, to Zionism, and to Jewish culture.

I know Mr. Lefkowitz and his family as members of my community. They represent personal testimony to a life in which he and his family are observant of Jewish practice, deeply engaged in Jewish culture and Zionism, and committed to a serious, Hebrew literacy, but without a firm belief in God or halacha. I have had my doubts in the staying power of such a position. Part of the reassuring answer to my concerns is the life that this family has continued to lead. What is described as Social Orthodoxy seems to be good for the Jews. It keeps many Jews together and on the path of Jewish observance.

I am still troubled, however, by how Social Orthodoxy will continue to work in practice. Part of my concern is rooted in an analysis presented recently by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks on the famous question of the rasha—the skeptical son—in the Haggadah. The rasha asks: “What is this avoda [worship] to you?” Rabbi Sacks, based on the Jerusalem Talmud, states that the word avoda should be translated as tircha—“hard work” or “bother.” The Talmud says that the rasha is asking the question about the Passover sacrifice. Why all this bother and effort? Why this plethora of rules about a festival sacrifice? Another commentary, authored in the Middle Ages when there was no Passover sacrifice, suggests that the rasha is asking why it is necessary to go through the whole tedious reading of the Haggadah before getting to the meal. Why can’t we just sit down and eat?

Rabbi Sacks suggests that Judaism requires a tremendous effort. Our religion is a system of detailed attention to religious practice in the Sabbath, in the dietary laws, in myriad rules that we are obligated to follow. The rasha is asking: Who needs all of this? The answer is that we need it. We have tried Judaism without the detailed attention to religious practice. Non-Orthodox leaders in Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist movements tried their best to keep Jews close to Judaism by easing the requirements and giving Jews the opportunity to be less restricted and restrained in their behavior with regard to Shabbat, kashrut, and other things. What happened was the exact opposite; rather than keeping Jews close to tradition, the lessening of demands led Jews to move further and further away from Judaism, the opposite of what was the intention of the leaders.

The real question that Mr. Lefkowitz’s article raises for the Jewish people in general, and for Orthodox Jews in particular, is the question of sustainability. Can Social Orthodoxy actually produce generations of committed Jews? How are Jewish history, Jewish culture, and commitment to Jewish peoplehood going to demand of me and my descendants the kind of avoda—effort and consistency—that is required of a committed Jew? Doesn’t such effort and consistency rest on a foundation of God, a divinely authored halacha, and, therefore, a required set of observances, not just a reasoned, voluntary performance of rituals? If it is the latter, why not allow driving to shul on Shabbat; why does one need a metal cover on the stove for Shabbat? Can’t one have a meaningful Shabbat without it? And why require a separation between men and women during worship? Can’t one have an inspirational prayer service without separating the sexes?

These are serious questions which are not easily answered by reason and logic and a desire to be part of the Jewish people and 4,000 years of Jewish history. The Orthodox or halachic Jew answers them by saying: All are required by Jewish law. They may or may not enhance our religious experience, but they are obligations that are part of the halachic system to which we subscribe.

It isn’t that we fear a thunderbolt hurled by God at us if we fail to perform a mitzvah or if we commit a sin. But there is something compelling about a life of Torah and mitzvot when one feels that such a life is based upon a divinely ordained system.

Many of today’s Social Orthodox Jews have sustained their commitment beyond a first generation. The Lefkowitz family is a case in point. They lead a highly committed Jewish life, driven by deeply ingrained cultural, historical, and social forces. And yet: Will those forces, divorced from a divine, halachic imperative, have lasting power on the Orthodox community as a whole? Will the children and grandchildren of today’s Social Orthodox be able to answer the Haggadah’s question: Why exert all this effort and all this expense and this whole avoda and undertake this detailed, comprehensive, and demanding way of life?

That troubling question remains. The answer to it depends on the survival and sustainability of a sanctified Jewish way of life, a life in which Mr. Lefkowitz and all of us so passionately believe.

Rabbi Haskel Lookstein
Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun, New York City

It is with great affection and admiration that I respond to Rabbi Haskel Lookstein’s observations. His efforts to promote Jewish continuity and observant Jewish life in America have been enormous, and successful. Both his synagogue in New York City, Kehilath Jeshurun, and the school he has led for several decades, Ramaz, are representative of the very best that American Jewry has to offer. And he has merged his own commitment to Torah and mitzvot with a genuinely open approach to Jews from all backgrounds.

Although Rabbi Lookstein acknowledges that Social Orthodoxy “keeps many Jews together and on the path of Jewish observance,” he questions the durability of an observant lifestyle that is not divinely authored. Notably, however, in framing his question in this way, Rabbi Lookstein seems to recognize that for Jews, faith is not necessarily an end in itself but rather, and perhaps primarily, a means to an end (living an observant Jewish lifestyle). That is consistent with the way in which the Orthodox Jewish community conducts its outreach. Consider the work of the most successful Orthodox Jewish outreach organization, Chabad. Its efforts focus predominantly on encouraging Jewish practices (putting on tefillin, attending a Shabbat dinner, or going to shul). There is nary a discussion of faith when its representatives first encounter nonobservant Jews. That is because Chabad recognizes that the power of behavior to cement a Jewish life trumps even the power of belief. Notably, this view is consistent with rabbinic tradition, as exemplified by the commentary on the verse in Jeremiah that states: “[They] have forsaken me and have not kept my Torah.” The midrash on Jeremiah as well as the Yerushalmi Talmud in Hagigah explain the deeper meaning of the passage as “[I]f only they had forsaken me and kept my Torah.”

Rabbi Lookstein correctly observes that efforts by non-Orthodox Jewish leaders to maintain Jewish continuity by easing the restrictions of Jewish law have not succeeded to the extent that Orthodox and Haredi communities have in maintaining continuity. That said, it is certainly fair to pose the question of whether the few million Conservative and Reform Jews who are engaged in Jewish life and support any number of American Jewish and Israeli organizations would have any connection at all to Judaism if Orthodoxy were the only option.

In any event, Social Orthodox Jews by and large do not shirk halachic responsibilities. They are simply motivated to engage in an observant lifestyle by community and history more than by faith. And even Rabbi Lookstein admits that Orthodox Jews need not fear divine retribution if they sin. The fact is that in an age of science and reason, and with biblical criticism raising serious questions about not only the authorship of the Bible but also its accuracy, tradition may actually be a more powerful impetus for leading an observant lifestyle than blind faith. After all, faith can be a quite fragile commodity, and the vicissitudes of life continually challenge our faith—with dramatically different outcomes for different people.

Rabbi Lookstein asks whether the children and grandchildren of today’s Social Orthodox Jews will have a meaningful answer to the Haggadah’s question of what is the value of all this religious “bother and effort.” While history will provide a conclusive answer, if the vitality of the community that Rabbi Lookstein has so powerfully influenced is a leading indicator (with its growing birthrate, low intermarriage rate, commitment to Jewish learning, and enthusiastic support for Israel), then I am optimistic.

To the Editor:

My hat is off to Jay P. Lefkowitz (even if there is a kippah underneath) for his perceptive and enthusiastically personal report on the Social Orthodox. In terms of the “belonging-behaving-believing” equation, there is, of course, no proper sequence. In origin and theory Jewish identity is an integrated composite of three strong elements: nationalism, religious belief, and ethnicity. In response to changing historical circumstances, Jews have been able to survive by limping along on two or even one leg. Mr. Lefkowitz is correct that of the three, the single most powerful factor in promoting Jewish continuity is “behaving,” which always brings along “belonging.”

He admits, however, that whether a Jewish cultural tradition such as he describes can be “sufficiently transmitted to the next generation is a fair question.” As a fellow Modern Orthodox Jew, I would like to make the following suggestion. In the area of “believing,” Mr. Lefkowitz knows of only two choices: the fundamentalist “certainty” of the Haredim or Kaplan’s naturalistic denial of a transcendent God. However, one must distinguish between “belief” and “faith.” The statement “I believe that…”—unlike “I know that…”—refers only to the state of one’s mind and makes no assertion as to the strength of the belief or the adequacy of the evidence upon which the belief might be based. Therefore, as a Modern Orthodox Jew, I can honestly and reasonably say in the traditional formula, ani ma’amin, I believe with a degree of probability that there exists a moral creator who guides history and inspired Scripture in wholehearted faith. That is, I have made a wholehearted commitment to a set of practices and values. The “doubts” generated by modernity can be accommodated in one’s cognitive beliefs while one’s commitment to Jewish behavior must bear the mark of religious faith and passion. The area of “believing” cannot be left unaddressed. Wholehearted commitment to Jewish values requires that we take a leap not blindly but to a rational theology. Only by adding believing to behaving and belonging can we make Social Orthodoxy a much more transmittable message.

Shubert Spero
Bar Ilan University, Jerusalem, Israel

Shubert Spero is correct that Jewish identity has historically been an amalgam of nationalism, religious belief, and ethnicity. However, since Spinoza first opened the door to biblical criticism in the late 17th century by suggesting that the Bible was compiled by the prophet Ezra, observant Jews have been forced to confront the question of the role of faith in Judaism. While Social Orthodox Jews deal with their doubts by committing themselves to an observant lifestyle that is not dependent on faith, Professor Spero insists that “believing” is necessary to making Social Orthodoxy a more transmittable message. His solution to dealing with the doubts that he acknowledges are “generated by modernity” is to distinguish between absolute faith and rational theology. If this synthesis works for Professor Spero and sustains his commitment to an observant Jewish life, I applaud him. But I cannot help wondering how Maimonides, whose formulation was “I believe with complete faith,” would react to Professor Spero’s formulation, which is “I believe with a degree of probability.” And I certainly do not think it wise for believing Jews to write out of the community those practicing Jews whose theological doubts may be so great that they don’t believe at all, or at least don’t believe to the degree of probability that Professor Spero deems adequate to make the ani ma’amins honest statements of belief.

To the Editor:

Jay P. Lefkowitz has written a provocative and thoughtful article in which he describes his Judaism in nontheological terms and focuses on the select observance of Jewish rituals and on a variety of social connections to Judaism and Israel. Surely there are other Jews who follow Mr. Lefkowitz’s Jewish choices, but I question whether they could sustain the future of Judaism or whether they could be neatly categorized as Mr. Lefkowitz suggests.

In my view, the future of Judaism in America depends on the development of the following factors (among others) that our leaders should encourage.

1. Jewish education—the more, the better, with communal financial support increased to allow Jews of all ages to participate.

2. Principles of Jewish faith and open expression of Jewish feeling through prayer as well as the practice of as many Commandments as one is able to perform with a proper understanding of the meaning of the Commandments.

3. Recognition that the State of Israel is a critical element of the biblical Promised Land that constitutes the nationalistic roots of the Jewish people in addition to the Jewish religion.

4. Marriage of Jews to other Jews while expressing tolerance and acceptance of nonobservant, intermarried, and gay couples who want to become part of the Jewish community.

5. Increased birthrates and adoption rates of Jews to increase our population, which is dangerously low.

6. Observance of ethical behavior or ethical Commandments toward all Jews and non-Jews alike.

I do not think Judaism can survive a transformation to a social group in which members follow whatever ritual they like and leave God out of the picture entirely. It is true that Judaism allows each Jew to develop his or her own theology and that the Commandments of the Torah and the Oral Law generally do not apply to beliefs. But many Jewish theologians disagree with Mr. Lefkowitz’s claim that Judaism does not have any dogmas that are central to our faith.

One need only look to the work of Maimonides. He identified 13 Principles, which are found in nearly every traditional Jewish prayer book, which one must understand and commit to. Based on normative Jewish law, these principles of faith are in addition to one’s obligation to obey God’s Commandments given to us in written and oral form through Moses at the revelation at Sinai.

It is difficult to imagine how one could claim to be a religious Jew if one did not believe in one God who created the world and all human beings. Young children are taught about the extraordinary manner in which the first “Jew,” Abraham, denounced idolatry and committed himself to monotheism. If Mr. Lefkowitz’s “social Judaism” would now allow atheists and agnostics to be religious Jews by attending social events after often abbreviated prayer services or study sessions, it is inconceivable to me that his 3 percent of social Jews will save Judaism rather than help destroy it.

Every generation carries the heavy moral burden of transmitting Judaism to the next generation. We have seen that America, which many suggest has been too “good” for Jews, and modern secular values have undermined the success of this transmission. It is difficult to be a religious Jew if one barely knows the difference between an aleph and a bet, or has never studied the Tanakh, or prayed from the heart or, most important, believed in one God.

Jordan B. Cherrick
St. Louis, Missouri

Jordan Cherrick’s recipe for the future of American Jewry is right on the money. He wants to promote more Jewish education, more Jewish marriages and a higher birthrate, increased commitment to Israel, and more prayer and engagement in the Commandments. His one brief reference to encouraging “principles of Jewish faith” suggests that he recognizes, at least implicitly, that when it comes to ensuring Jewish continuity, it is imperative that institutions work to help shape how Jews live their lives and promote halachic adherence among all Jews, even those who don’t necessarily subscribe to the set of traditional Jewish beliefs about God or the precise nature of Torah. Mr. Cherrick derides what he calls “social Judaism” as allowing non-believing Jews to be considered religious merely by attending social events or abbreviated prayer services. But that’s merely a straw man. Unlike his depiction, Social Orthodox Jews are genuinely observant and live Jewish lives suffused by religious practices.

I also question Mr. Cherrick’s statement that Maimonides’s 13 Principles of Faith are a creed to which every Jew must “commit.” I seriously doubt, for example, that a great many non-Haredi Jews (of any type) believe, as Maimonides articulated in his 13th Principle, in the literal resurrection of the dead.

Finally, Mr. Cherrick mistakenly suggests that I have described all Modern Orthodox Jews as Social Orthodox. As I made clear in the article, it appears that a significant percentage of Modern Orthodox Jews fit within this new designation. But it is equally clear that within the modern Orthodox community, there are also a large number of Jews who believe deeply in divine revelation.

To the Editor:

I enjoyed Jay P. Lefkowitz’s essay and would add that what he calls “Social Orthodoxy” is really a reflection of the traditional understanding of what it meant to be Jewish in the pre-modern period.

All Jewish denominations—Orthodoxy included—are self-conscious, ideological movements spawned by the disruptions of modernity, and they all are subject to the artificialities of ideological rationalization, systematizing, and peremptory demands for purity and conformity. Modern Orthodox Jews these days, who like to think of themselves as executing exquisitely sophisticated, if not excruciating, balancing acts, are really trying to return to the medieval Jewish community, which always acted as a church (full of sinners, trimmers, temporizers) more than a sect (where conformity to the ideal is the minimal threshold for inclusion).

By the way, it was traditional Orthodox rabbis, fashioned in the pre-modern mold, who opposed Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (the patron saint of Modern Orthodoxy) in his revolutionary attempt to split off the Orthodox Community of Frankfurt from the pan-Jewish Gemeinde in the late 1870–1880s. Therein lies a tale.

He is undoubtedly right that the Modern Orthodox community is probably the only available glue to hold together the American Jewish community in a recognizable form going forward. Even some of the people at the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary whom I meet seem to think so. In fact, they are more “Social Orthodox” than not.

Charles Edelsburg
New York City

I thank Charles Edelsburg for his observations. He correctly notes that what I describe as Social Orthodoxy is essentially what it meant to live a Jewish life in the pre-modern era. His comment that even some of the people he meets at JTS agree that Modern Orthodoxy is the glue most likely to hold together the American Jewish community, however, is worthy of reflection. That is because Modern Orthodoxy (especially its Social Orthodox version) is not that different from the original conception of Conservative Judaism.

Conservative Judaism, as its name implies, was a response to the more liberal positions taken by Reform Jewry in the latter half of the 19th century, including its rejection of the laws of kashrut. Its aim was to conserve Jewish tradition even while recognizing that halacha should not be static. And in its early years, most Conservative rabbis and many Conservative congregations were Sabbath- and kashrut-observant, and there was a proliferation of Conservative Jewish day schools. Over the past half century, however, as Conservative rabbis have sought to make their congregations more inviting to a broader swath of Jews by imposing fewer religious restrictions, Conservative Judaism has evolved into what might best be described, to quote Mr. Cherrick, as “social Judaism.” And this trend has had predictable results. As the Pew study revealed, Conservative Judaism is slowly withering. While 24 percent of Jews aged 65 and older identify as Conservative, only 11 percent of Jews between the ages of 18 and 29 do the same. Yet due to the power of the behavioral model of Judaism, or what I call Social Orthodoxy, many highly educated Jews who grew up in the Conservative movement have migrated to Modern Orthodoxy in the last generation, as Jack Wertheimer has documented in the pages of Commentary. What makes Social Orthodoxy different from today’s mainstream Conservative Judaism, then, is not so much its theological differences but the extent of its members’ commitment to rigorous practice.

To the Editor:

Jay P. Lefkowitz’s personal account of what he terms Social Orthodoxy describes most of American Judaism. Though we term ourselves a religion, in fact we are sociologically more akin to an ethnic group. The ethnicity of the Social Orthodox is stronger, buttressed by “Jet” behavior, but institutional membership and friendship ties and—among truly ethnic Jews like Parsim or Syrians—a modality of kinship. Few American Jews go to temple or shul for a spiritual experience. The level of chatter betrays the real reason for attendance: ethnic bonding.

How Mr. Lefkowitz evaluates his Judaism is left unclear. Is he complacent with his formalized, sterile, and passionless participation? Or does he expect more from his rabbi, his community, and himself—does he await the moment where he might break from the spell of being awake, but his heart asleep? The materialism, affluence, and social recognitions of American culture do much to anesthetize spirituality. Our Jewish institutions play to our somnolent souls by providing a Judaism based upon affiliation and behavior. Orthodoxy is as guilty of this as Reform—perhaps even more so.

I see Mr. Lefkowitz’s article not as a plea for founding the Shul of Social Judaism, but as a warning to Modern Orthodoxy, and to Jews of all affiliations. His father avowed that strict observance is important because “he views halacha as a compass, and that every Jew, even if he or she chooses to take some detours along the way, should know which direction is true north.” But why should one need to know north? What distinguishes north from south? A compass is useful only if one has a goal, no matter how distant. As one of my teachers once said, “It’s like asking if the #11 bus is a good bus.” Only if it takes you closer to where you want to go. One could blame Mr. Lefkowitz’s rabbi, or his community, or the spiritual and intellectual leadership of his movement for not providing an engaging model of struggle and fulfillment as an Orthodox Jew in America. But the challenge and responsibility ultimately falls upon Mr. Lefkowitz, and upon us all, to create out of our lives and in our world a Judaism of passion and reason, of struggle and beauty.

Reuven Spero
Shilo, Israel

Reuven Spero is clearly unhappy that most Jews identify themselves based on affiliation and behavior and are not, in his view, sufficiently spiritual. But he mistakenly equates questions of faith with the negation of a fully engaged Jewish life, which includes very real spiritual dimensions. He could not be more wrong. When he asks of me, “Is he complacent with his formalized, sterile, and passionless participation?” it is clear he has no appreciation for the joy and spirituality that one can feel in reciting prayers and singing melodies in synagogue that connect one with Jews across continents and even centuries. Sitting down to dinner in a sukkah, dancing on Simchat Torah, sharing a Passover seder with relatives, blessing my children on Friday nights—these are neither sterile nor passionless activities. On the contrary, they create meaning and purpose and bring joy, irrespective of whether the participants believe they are divinely commanded. And when Mr. Spero claims to be perplexed that my father would want to study halacha and know which way was true north, because “a compass is useful only if one has a goal,” it’s clear that he doesn’t appreciate that learning Torah is itself a fundamental part of the life of Jewish halachic practice that I have described. And of course, given Social Orthodoxy’s key goal to perpetuate the existence of a people who have more than 3,000 years of recorded history and who have made enormous contributions to the world, learning Torah is a core part of instilling that sense of belonging. Whether we believe we are commanded by God to live the lives that we do, or whether we take on these obligations of our own accord, Social Orthodox Jews live a life of commitment to studying and practicing Jewish law because we owe it to our ancestors and our co-religionists.

Finally, Mr. Spero comments that “one could blame Mr. Lefkowitz’s rabbi, or his community, or the spiritual and intellectual leadership of his movement for not providing an engaging model of struggle and fulfillment as an Orthodox Jew in America.” But the Jewish community in which I have lived has immense spiritual and intellectual leadership that has provided a most engaging model of struggle and fulfillment. That is one of the reasons I live a life devoted to Jewish tradition and why one of my children served in the IDF; another is about to spend a year living in Israel and traveling to Jewish communities around the world; and a third is studying in a yeshiva high school in New York City. What Mr. Spero fails to recognize is that those with the faith he describes do not have a monopoly on spirituality, and spirituality does not have a monopoly on what constitutes passionate and engaged Judaism.

To the Editor:

I share many of Jay P. Lefkowitz’s views in his essay. However, I believe the term “Social Orthodoxy” fails to capture the reality that many observant Jews still find great spiritual depth and satisfaction from their encounter with Jewish texts, observances, and beliefs. Those beliefs may be nondoctrinaire, and more malleable than one finds in other segments of the Orthodox world, but that does not at all mean that they are not a source of great spiritual depth and meaning. The term “Social Orthodoxy” strikes me as devaluing the profoundly spiritual nature of observant life. That spirituality comes from traditional beliefs of many sorts, even if some traditional beliefs are not held dogmatically, or even at all. And also from the spiritual significance of connecting to community and to a people, both horizontally in the present, and vertically throughout the ages.

Michael Stein
Skokie, Illinois

Although Michael Stein shares many of my views, he takes issue with the term “Social Orthodoxy,” because he thinks it devalues the spiritual satisfaction that many observant Jews find “from their encounter with Jewish texts, observances, and beliefs.” But one can have a profoundly spiritual experience without necessarily believing that Moses stood on Sinai and received dictation from God, or that, as many devout Jews believe, the rabbis in the Talmudic era were imbued with divine authority when they were engaged in interpreting the Torah. Although Social Orthodox Jews are motivated more by a communal imperative than a theological one, the Jewish activities to which they are deeply committed can provide immense spiritual satisfaction. Some of the most spiritually uplifting moments in my life have involved communal prayer—reading the Book of Lamentations on Tish’a B’av at camp by the lake, learning chumash with my father; singing havdalah with my children on Saturday night, welcoming the Shabbat with the melody of “L’chah Dodi,” and singing zemirot after Shabbat dinner. And communal Jewish experiences of a national dimension can be equally spiritual—standing at attention in Israel on Memorial Day when the siren wails, or participating in a Yom Hashoah commemoration.

To the Editor:

Jay P. Lefkowitz’s engaging reflections on Orthopraxy were pithily summarized by the late Louis Jacobs in a homily on Psalm 19:7: “The Torah of the Lord is perfect—it restoreth the soul.” He flipped the verse to provide a rationale for non-fundamentalist Jewish observance: “Because it restores the soul, therefore the Torah of the Lord is perfect.”

Paul Shaviv
New York City

Paul Shaviv’s comment reminds me of a similar observation made by Ahad Ha’am, the founder of Cultural Zionism, who wrote that “more than the Jews have kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jews.”

To the Editor:

It is ironic that, for the Social Orthodox such as Jay P. Lefkowitz who hold Jewish survival paramount, the ability to transmit such a Judaism from one generation to the next is of dubious certainty. Without belief in God as the central binding tenet of Jewish faith and the animating source of Jewish religious practice, it is unlikely that the descendants of today’s “Social Orthodox” will be Orthodox Jews at all—social, modern, or otherwise.

Benjamin Taylor
Los Angeles, California

Benjamin Taylor suggests that belief in God is both “the central binding tenet of Jewish faith” and “the animating source of Jewish religious practice.” I have no quarrel with his first point. Our debate is solely over his latter claim. In the Modern Orthodox community today, we see evidence suggesting that tradition and community can in fact be very powerful motivators of religious observance, even among those who lack the core aspect of traditional faith. And Social Orthodoxy certainly does more to perpetuate Jewish identity and practice than would an Orthodox movement that made faith a precondition to membership and participation. I understand Mr. Taylor’s concerns about whether this brand of Orthodoxy will pass well from generation to generation, and no one can predict that with certainty. But I am much more optimistic about the descendants of today’s Social Orthodox Jews than is Mr. Taylor.

To the Editor:

Jay P. Lefkowitz rejects Mordecai Kaplan’s statement that “belonging precedes behaving precedes believing” and instead suggests that behaving precedes belonging, and believing is optional. I agree with Mr. Lefkowitz that behaving as a Jew—traveling to Israel, participating in a seder, or learning Hebrew—gives one “a powerful feeling of belonging,” but even if he dismisses believing as non-essential to the exemplary Jewish life, God remains as the elephant in the room.

Mr. Lefkowitz regrets the peeling off of Reform and Conservative membership through intermarriage, and the abdication of religion by younger Jews. And he admits that the most thriving Jewish community, the ultra-Orthodox, has the largest number of young adherents, the highest birthrate, and the highest percentage of believers (96 percent). Does that mean there is a connection between youth and belief? Are Jewish young people more disposed to belief? Not according to the Pew study, where one-third of Jews under 35 say they have no religion at all. So what is different about young ultra-Orthodox Jews? I don’t think they are more disposed to belief, just more exposed to it. Discussions of theology and mysticism attract and fascinate—not just the youth, but everyone.

This is exactly what is happening in the ultra-Orthodox community today. Yes, they are rigid halachists insulated from the outside world. But what gives their religious practice generational continuity is their core belief in God—that God is real; that God imparted His Commandments at Sinai; that we made an ancient promise to perform and obey them; and if we kept that promise, things would go well for us. These faith precepts provide the starting point for theological and eschatological inquiry. This is what makes the study of Torah not just an obligation, but a pleasure. These exercises to find meaning are what keep the Jews centered, even when things aren’t going so well.

Belief is what sustains the ultra-Orthodox through the generations and why one day they will be called “the remnant.” Yes, Mr. Lefkowitz, identity is important—it brings the Jew forward through history. And I agree, practice is important—it brings the Torah through history. But faith is the most important because it brings the God of Israel through history. I applaud Mr. Lefkowitz for his great feeling of community with both the Jewish and secular worlds, and for his effort to fulfill the mitzvot. But then I would refer him to Deuteronomy 6:5, which says, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” What greater mitzvah is there than that?

David Marwil
Lexington, Kentucky

David Marwil claims that the belief that “God is real; and [that] God imparted his Commandments at Sinai,” is what sustains the ultra-Orthodox. I have no doubt that faith plays a large role in the ultra-Orthodox community, although I suspect that social conformism does, too, as it does in all insular communities. At any rate, it will be a sad day both for American Jewry and Israel if the ultra-Orthodox become, as Mr. Marwil predicts, the “remnant” of the Jewish community. In America it would mean a Jewish community largely isolated from the broader society; and in Israel it would mean a Jewish community ambivalent at best about Jewish sovereignty over the land of Israel and reluctant to fight to defend it. The survival of the Jewish people depends on fostering a much larger and more diverse population of committed and engaged Jews. And Social Orthodox Jews, even if they are ambivalent in matters of faith, are deeply engaged in Jewish lives. Mr. Marwil asks what greater mitzvah there could be than to love God. I would suggest that the first verse in Leviticus 19, which commands us to be kadosh—holy or separate—may be equally important to the survival of the Jewish people. The way for a Jew to sanctify his or her life is to commit to a life of observance. For some, the believing will follow. For others, it may always be about the doing. But it is in the behaving as a Jew that holiness is attained.

To the Editor:

Despite his claim, Jay P. Lefkowitz’s decidedly unorthodox “Orthodox” practice is at great odds with the convictions of most thoughtful “Modern Orthodox” Jews, at least those known to this Haredi Jew.

Those “moderns” (a misleading adjective, to be sure, as most of us Haredim don’t live in caves, roast our meat over spits, or, for that matter, lack for contemporary technology) may embrace elements of secular culture, higher secular education, or Zionism to a greater degree than most of their “centrist” or Haredi brothers and sisters. But God is most certainly central to their worldview and their daily lives. (What, in fact, does Mr. Lefkowitz do in synagogue each week? Pray? To Whom? Never mind.)

What Mr. Lefkowitz describes as “Social Orthodoxy” is precisely what Mordecai Kaplan, whom he cites approvingly, realized was not Orthodoxy of any color at all and had the integrity to christen “Reconstructionism.” Why the word Orthodoxy is so dear to Mr. Lefkowitz, and why it remains so fashionable that it attracts so many antithetical adjectives, is beyond me; but so it goes.

One factual correction, moreover, is surely in order. What Mr. Lefkowitz told his Catholic friend about our ancestors’ response at Sinai—“We will do and understand afterward”—was simply wrong, according to millennia of Jewish tradition. That statement of conviction was not a matter of “letting matters of faith come afterward” but rather of letting understanding come afterward. That is to say that believing Jews follow not only the Torah’s Commandments that make sense to us, but even those that we cannot comprehend.

Why? Because they have been commanded, by God.

Rabbi Avi Shafran
New York City

It’s clear from his first sentence that Rabbi Shafran confuses practice and conviction. Perhaps for some Haredim, like himself, there is no meaningful distinction—although based on the letters and emails I have received from many Haredim, and from many sociological studies of the community, it appears that a number of them behave in order to belong in much the same way as do many Modern Orthodox Jews. Indeed, given the insularity of those communities, and the staggering costs of exit, the extent of observance that is not generated by true faith may even be more prevalent there than in some other strains of Judaism where there is a real choice of whether to stay or leave. The data (and the overwhelming number of emails I have received) suggest that for many non-Haredi observant Jews, there is a distinction between practice and convictions.

It’s not clear why the concept of Social Orthodoxy is so threatening to Rabbi Shafran, but he can’t seem to get the anger or condescension out of his tone when he asks what I do in synagogue each week and to whom I pray. What I do is recite prayers that link me to Jews across the world and across history. That rouses very powerful emotions in me, as I assume it does for many others. As to whom I pray each day, the answer is that despite my questions about God and my uncertainties about God’s role in history, I pray to God, because that is what Jews do. It is part of the fabric of my life. And whether or not Jewish law is divine is beside the point for Social Orthodox Jews. What matters is living a Jewish life filled with Jewish culture and religious observance.

Finally, Rabbi Shafran takes issue with my interpretation of the well-known verse in Exodus 24 in which the Jews announce that they will commit to carrying out the Commandments even before they learn what that observance actually involves. Although Rabbi Shafran is certainly entitled to interpret the text as he wishes, I am most comfortable relying on the literal and traditional translation of the text. Indeed, even before the famous “naaseh v’nishma” proclamation, the Jews had already pledged themselves to the Torah twice. In both instances, their acceptance was simply “we shall do.”

My most fundamental confusion about Rabbi Shafran’s approach is whether he believes that Orthodox Judaism should be telling those who lack faith that there is no value in their observing halacha. Imagine a Jew who approaches a rabbi and confides, “I don’t really believe in God or that God gave the Torah, so I am not sure whether I should continue to fast on Yom Kippur or observe Kashrut or Shabbat.” I submit there is not an Orthodox rabbi on the planet who would counsel that person to throw away observance unless it is faith-driven. Indeed, I am confident that no halachic authority throughout time has ever taken that position. So I cannot understand why Rabbi Shafran is so hostile to the view that even those who lack the traditional tenets of Orthodox faith should be encouraged to continue their halachic observance.

To the Editor:

Jay P. Lfkowitz’s article is quite interesting but not comprehensive enough, since it overlooks another group, very similar to those described but without a mechitza, namely traditional or frum-egalitarian Conservative Jews. I think the titles such as Orthodox and Conservative are losing significance when it comes to many of us who would agree with many of the points made yet rarely attend Orthodox shuls. The question remains: Does the mixing of women and men in the same room during prayers detract from our prayers? With the inclusion of gay Jews this becomes even more interesting. This Shabbat I plan to attend a traditional egalitarian Conservative shul, LGBT-friendly, with a woman as cantor. In my view, at least, this service is more meaningful than a sex-separated shul that may begrudgingly let women say the Kaddish. Will we ever merge forces and attempt to form a new middle ground that represents a significant component of the future of Judaism and the transmission of Torah?

Lee Smith
Dewitt, New York

I appreciate the sentiment in Lee Smith’s letter and recognize that within Conservative Jewry there are certainly some people who live very traditional Jewish lives and could easily identify as Social Orthodox. The question of whether the mixing of men and women during communal prayer (without the traditional mechitza, or divider) detracts from our prayers is beyond the scope of my article. I would note, however, that the movement within Modern Orthodoxy to give women a greater role in communal religious services does not track any divide between Modern Orthodoxy and Social Orthodoxy, and the leaders (and resisters) in this movement span that continuum.

To the Editor:

I am a teacher in an Orthodox high school and the “teen rabbi” of one of the largest Orthodox synagogues in America. I find that while 27 percent of Jewish children are growing up in Orthodox homes, many aren’t engaged by a Torah-observant lifestyle. I think that the Orthodox community needs to change its approach from the social one of the Jewish Baby Boomer generation, where “the key to Jewish living is not our religious beliefs but our commitment to a set of practices and values that foster community and continuity,” to an approach that teaches that being Torah-observant is a young Jew’s stand against assimilation and advances Jewish uniqueness. In giving each individual teenager a mission and charge, their observance takes on greater significance. Jewish teenagers today aren’t satisfied with observing halacha simply to “foster community and continuity.” They demand that they understand the logic in halachic practice and ritual. If we don’t provide it, if we don’t show them the wisdom of the Torah, the logic of our mesorah and traditions, we can write off the continuity of Orthodox Judaism in the future.

Uri Pilichowski
Boca Raton, Florida

I admire Uri Pilichowski for his commitment to Jewish education and for his efforts as a rabbi and teacher to give young Orthodox Jews both a mission and a charge. And I certainly agree with him that being observant “is a young Jew’s stand against assimilation.” Although Mr. Pilichowski suggests that a “social” approach to Jewish observance is insufficient, for many young Jews the only “logic in halachic practice” is the embrace of community and the embrace by community. Teenagers in particular are prone to questioning authority. And we can hardly offer young people secular educations and rigorous training in the sciences and philosophy and be surprised when they express doubts about divine revelation. Social Orthodoxy gives these young men and women a way to stay connected while they explore the boundaries of their beliefs. For some it may be a stop along the way toward the kind of orthodoxy Pilichowski wishes to promote; for others it may be the destination. But we should celebrate both paths, because both lead to affiliated Jews who live meaningful Jewish lives.

To the Editor:

Modern Orthodoxy does not have its “origins” in the teachings of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch as Jay P. Lefkowitz claims in his article. In fact, the Modern Orthodox thinking discussed by Mr. Lefkowitz in the piece is precisely what Hirsch dedicated his life to eradicate.

“For Hirsch the Torah is thus axiomatic, as unquestionably real as Nature itself. To doubt or question this would be to put oneself outside Judaism,” is how Dayan Dr. I. Grunfeld, the Hirschian scholar and translator, expresses the rabbi’s philosophy, in his introduction to Horeb, his magnum opus.

Hirsch’s mission was to educate German Jewry that (in Hirsch’s words) “even…if every Divine precept were a riddle to us and presented us with a thousand unsolved and insoluble problems, the obligatory character of the Commandments would not in the slightest degree be impaired by this.”

This belief is found consistently in all of Hirsch’s writings and is in diametric opposition to the thinking of Social Orthodoxy as described by Mr. Lefkowitz. To the reader seeking an understanding of the Commandments of the Torah, eternal and inviolable, I recommend the wondrous writings of Samson Raphael Hirsch.

Mimi Weinfeld
Brooklyn, New York

Mimi Weinfeld declares that Modern Orthodoxy does not have its origins in the teachings of Rabbi Hirsch. It is true that Hirsch was not a Zionist (which is one of the key features of Modern Orthodoxy). But, his embrace of secular education and Western culture (he once gave a major address praising the contribution that the German poet Friedrich Schiller made to humanity) and his promotion of education of women (he opened a school for girls in the 19th century) surely make him one of the father figures of Modern Orthodoxy. That said, Weinfeld is correct that the portion of the Modern Orthodoxy community that I describe as Social Orthodox would certainly have challenged some of Hirsch’s most deeply held convictions about the total divinity of the Torah.

To the Editor:

If Jay P. Lefkowitz asserts, the key to Jewish identity and continuity is not what you believe but what you do and with whom you do it, then the implications of his argument extend well beyond the relative merits of any one denomination. If Mr. Lefkowitz is correct, then ideology is entirely secondary to sociology, or, as Yeshiva University’s Richard Joel once put it, what matters most is whether you “do Jewish with other Jews.” Orthodoxy may have a competitive advantage in that its built-in system of observance generates a sense of communal belonging; but it is not the only way. Ask anyone who went to Jewish summer camp—Reform, Conservative, or Orthodox. What made it work? Doing Jewish with other Jews. What about Birthright? It has no ideology, but it has transformed Jewish life. Why? Doing Jewish with other Jews. What about the State of Israel? Doing Jewish with other Jews—on a national scale. Synagogues, youth groups, day schools, gap-year programs, any initiative seeking to generate and sustain a deep sense of communal connection, regardless of denomination, these are the efforts that will produce a thick sense of Jewish identity for the contemporary Jew.

Ever since the Enlightenment and Emancipation, a tug of war has existed within the Jewish soul. Once granted the ability to live beyond parochial communal boundaries, we seized the opportunity to do so. With permeable communal walls and fluid social identities, Jews entered into new personal and professional space, relishing the unprecedented freedoms of citizens of the modern world. As the internal and external forces that had compelled us to remain tightly knit ceased to be operative, the Jewish community could no longer assume that Jews would “do Jewish with other Jews.”

This phenomenon is not limited to the Jewish world. As Robert Putnam argued in Bowling Alone, in the past 50 years, the fabric of all communal institutions—PTAs, rotary clubs, bowling leagues, and others—has also frayed. In recent years, our reservoir of social capital has been even further depleted by new technologies that, though aimed to connect people, actually further undermine our ability to create communities of meaning. No longer, write Howard Gardner and Katie Davis in The App Generation, must one ask for directions, have face-to-face conversations, or engage in dialogue beyond 140 characters. From the Emancipation to the iPhone there is ever-diminishing intimacy between teens, between adults, and among Jews. It is the bitter irony of our moment. Never before has it been as easy to connect to other Jews, yet never before has the modern Jew been so alienated from his or her Jewish community.

Which is why we must direct social and actual capital toward creating communal structures that are aimed to be socially (not theologically) Orthodox. We cherish our autonomy, but we also seek to be at home in our yiddishkeit. We want to be part of our people. “To be free and to belong,” to paraphrase Natan Sharansky, these are the two somewhat contradictory impulses embedded in every Jew. The differentiated role of synagogues is that they are the only Jewish institutions in the American landscape whose primary mission is to generate connections binding one Jew to another and one generation to the next. But we must also support initiatives that seek to accomplish the same goal by other means. Jewish camping, Hillel, Birthright, Masa, Jewish day schools, and others. At every juncture we must create opportunities for Jews to do Jewish with other Jews, even when—especially when—the rest of the world tells us otherwise.

Above all, Mr. Lefkowitz’s article reminds us that the most critical player in the formation of Jewish identity is not institutional or denominational, but personal. Far too often, far too many Jews sit and kvetch about their movements, complaining that their leaders are yet again missing a historic opportunity to reinvigorate Jewish life, blaming some underpaid ideologue or funding-strapped programmer as if he or she were responsible for their personal Jewish lives. This must stop. In this day and age, the only thing preventing a person from “doing Jewish” is that person. It is not rocket science. The decision to invite others for Shabbat dinner. To choose to participate in a synagogue trip to Israel. To sign up for a class or designate one night a week to “do Jewish with other Jews.” To get involved in a Jewish organization committed to one’s highest values. Before bemoaning the state of the organized Jewish world, let’s make sure we have organized ourselves toward stepping into that very world that is so readily criticized from the bleachers.

My Hillel director, mentor, and friend Michael Brooks often observed that Jews spend so much time drawing lines among ourselves, further subdividing a people that is not all that big to begin with. Ultimately there is only one line that matters, the line separating those who have opted in to the Jewish community from those who have yet to do so. Take a leap of faith, be on the right side of the line, and write yourself into the narrative of the greatest story ever told. Most of all, help build communities that are sufficiently secure to create a sense of belonging, but always open enough to welcome those seeking entry.

Rabbi Elliot J. Cosgrove
Park Avenue Synagogue, New York City

As a leading conservative rabbi, Elliot Cosgrove is focused on how to motivate a community that is largely nonobservant and non-believing to live deeply Jewish lives. And he recognizes the peril of trying to promote particularism, especially religious and ethnic particularism, in a society as open and free as the United States. His response, channeling former Hillel president and now Yeshiva University president Richard Joel, is to charge us, in the words of the Hillel motto, to “do Jewish with other Jews.”

Rabbi Cosgrove acknowledges that orthodoxy has a competitive advantage in this regard because of its built-in system of observance. But he suggests that there are other ways to achieve this objective that do not necessarily require religious observance. Take a trip to Israel, he suggests; sign up for a Jewish class, or support Jewish day schools and camps; or invite someone to a Shabbat dinner. I don’t disagree that secular Jews (especially those who follow Rabbi Cosgrove’s prescription) can be totally dedicated to Jewish community and can successfully transmit their commitment to a Jewish life to their children. Unfortunately, the data suggest that such Jews are few and far between. And with non-Orthodox Jews intermarrying at a rate in excess of 70 percent and giving birth well below the replacement rate, the number of nonobservant Jews who are in fact “doing Jewish” is regrettably very small. The point here is that as the level of observance increases, so too does the level of inter-generational commitment—precisely because it promotes a sense of observance and belonging and family and community all going hand-in-hand.

I applaud Rabbi Cosgrove for recognizing the appeal of Social Orthodoxy and trying to import aspects of it into his community. But Social Orthodoxy at its core is not simply about building communities in order to create a sense of belonging. It is fundamentally about engaging seriously in religious observance and cultural activities—because such behavior promotes the deepest sense of belonging. 

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